As wearing masks become mandatory, I reflect on the “other” masks we wear daily, and the project that changed the course of my life.
On 24 July 2020, it became a fineable offence not to wear a mask in shops, takeaways and places where social distancing could not be adhered to in England.
Fear not, I’m not here to talk about masks to help stem the transmission of COVID-19. Instead, I am using this trending topic to reflect on the project that changed everything for me. It allowed me to establish myself as a multidisciplinary artist here in London and how it ultimately transformed the way I look at the world – and my work.
In 2013, still new to the UK, with absolutely no street cred or newsworthy profile to speak of, and in the midst of me transitioning my kit to a eco-centric one, I was hired to do some body painting for a Homeopathy UK campaign.
It was on this job that I had the great fortune of meeting and working with a young up-and-coming celebrity photographer named Rachell Smith (who by the way is no longer up-and-coming but is very much at the top of her game!)
Rachell approached me to do some creative portfolio work with her. If memory serves, the initial concept was about exploring the person behind the portrait. Whatever it was, what it became was a 24-portrait series exploring the deepest levels of our personalities, and the masks we present to the world. The series was displayed on the Shoreditch Art Wall in October 2013 and featured in Volt Café in 2015.
This was my first real experience with creative collaboration and intersectionality in my work. While I had always been interested in different things – from makeup to ecology and human-rights to entrepreneurship – I never had the opportunity or the know-how (or perhaps more accurately, the advantages of seeing the world differently thanks to my own lived experiences) to really develop a layered and deeper meaning to the creative work I was doing.
I remember trying to “design” what as I was going to paint on Andy’s face for Rachell’s original idea (we were only ever going to do one or two images and Andy was our first muse) – and I was really struggling with conjuring up an idea. So I drafted some questions for Andy to gain a deeper understanding into him as a person, his memories of childhood and how they shaped him into the man he had become.
What I discovered was that the way he described himself and the language he used to describe this self-projection were at odds. I realised that Andy’s bubbly, easy-going personality and, at times self-deprecating humour, was just a mask he wore to protect himself. This juxtaposition fascinated me and stirred up creative inspiration, and a new way of thinking that continues to fuel and influence my work today.
The incredible privilege of being allowed to read between the lines of someone else’s life was the jumping off point for The Masks We Face portrait series. We used the same set of questions for all our muses, and the results continued to reveal the human coping-mechanism that is positive projecting (or in this context; the metaphorical mask we wear) to protect our deepest, truest, most vulnerable selves.
Along with a the questionnaire, each sitter provided me with several photographs of themselves.
I dug into the words each of them used, and researched the colours that were associated to them. I then explored artists and artworks, both famous and unknown, to inspire the masks I was going to be painting on their faces.
The end result was the sitters own face painted back onto them, in a style that reflected the language they used to describe themselves – but it was never a direct copy of any single artwork. Each painting was nuanced by the colour choices and the practicalities of painting a 2-dimensional image onto a 3-dimensional canvas.
Although I mapped out what the final paintings were going to be on paper prior to the sessions, early on, Rachell and I decided to not allow the sitter to see the paintings until they were captured on camera.
One unexpected, but fascinating outcome of this approach for me, was that in nearly every single circumstance, the sitter resonated with colour choices and artistic inspiration I had used. I know for Rachell, her observation was the by masking the sitter, they become more open to the camera and the poses where more natural and comfortable – as if they didn’t have to project a persona for the lense. Even those who were less comfortable in front of a camera under normal circumstances.
The takeaway from this project for me, was the more dense the layers of the idea, the more interesting the outcome and longevity of the work.
I would encourage young creatives, particularly makeup artists and art directors, to collaborate and engage in personal projects for your portfolios that go beyond merely trying to emulate that latests trends, and instead explore ideas that resonate with your personal ethos or areas of interest. Not only will it allow you to create original work, but it will deepen your practice and appreciation of your art form.
In an industry where so much is superficial, digging below the surface of thing should form part of your strategy to sustain. Sustain your creativity, sustain your earnings and sustaining life on this Planet while making an impact.
We are living through unprecedented and trying times. They have proved both constrictive and liberating at the same time. This pandemic – as awful as it is – has also gifted us things; the time to reflect, reevaluate and realign our priorities – either by force or choice, and it has challenged us with change and uncertainty.
While we now have to wear physical masks as a form of protection, may they allow you a moment to consider the metaphorical mask you have been wearing your entire life. The mask that has been shaped by society, passing comments and own reflections.
Remember, it’s okay to wear a mask, in fact, it’s human nature. Just be sure that you take it off every now and then and sit with your true self so you don’t lose sight of who you are without it.
In no uncertain terms, this project changed the course of my life. I don’t know that I would still be living in the UK or doing the work that I do had I not participated in it. And for that, I am eternally grateful to Rachell and every single person who sat for me while I projected a little bit of myself onto their faces.
View my latest intersectional work, The I AM IMPACT Project.